Tennessee Titans 2018 Draft Preview by Position

Another of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. Book notes post coming when my reading merits one.

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage for years has been a draft preview by position, including a breakdown of what the Titans have at each position, what they might be looking for, and a probability the Titans draft a player at that position. Because I’m only doing one pre-draft post per year, I will also note the players the Titans have reportedly have had either a private workout or a visit with (via Titans Report compilation).

Every player the Titans drafted in 2017 they either worked out privately or had in to St. Thomas Sports Park on a pre-draft visit, and the same was true of almost every player they selected in 2016 as well. It’s clear that general manager Jon Robinson places a lot of value on that pre-draft contact, and it is worth taking seriously. Of course, we haven’t known about all the visits or workouts of players the Titans would draft before they actually selected that player, so the listing of linked players in this post does not include the entire universe of players the Titans could draft. Still, it has been a useful guide in the past to players and positions the Titans might target.

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 6 picks in the 2018 NFL draft (their own picks in the first six rounds). To make my probabilities as realistic as possible, I want the sum of the draft probabilities to add up to a number reasonably close to the number of picks the Titans have when I write the post. Last year, that was 7.0 for 8 actual picks. This year, I chose 5.5. I know, 5.5 is still short of 6, but it puts me in the ballpark. If my probabilities for a position look off to you, it may be a function of trying to work within that limited cap. If you think I am underrating the likelihood the Titans draft, say, an inside linebacker, then I must by definition be overrating the likelihood the Titans draft some other position(s). Mentally adjust as you see fit, but your adjustment should be net zero.

If things go like they have in the past, the Titans will hit all but one of the positions I think they have them rated as pretty likely to draft while hitting one of the position I think it less likely they will draft.

I should note that, as much as I can, this post attempts to describe what the Titans might think based on how I think the Titans might think. Jon Robinson and Mike Vrabel will be setting the direction and making the decisions for the team, so I try to think how they would think. What I would do if I ran the Titans is (a) in some cases quite different and (b) completely irrelevant in terms of predicting what the Titans will do. This task is made more complicated this year given that Vrabel is a new hire, and key questions about both the offense and defense I noted in early March remain unanswered. I will hit on some of particular note in my brief position breakdowns. So, yeah, more guessing this year than I really feel comfortable with, but them’s the breaks. On with the show.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter. Blaine Gabbert is the backup. Simple question: do the Titans want to carry a third quarterback? With Mariota’s price tag increasing significantly next year, even a modest cap hit for a backup quarterback like Gabbert’s $2M figure may be more than they want to spend. Better to add that player this year and develop him so he can be ready in his second season to play acceptably should he be called upon to do so. But it certainly shouldn’t be a priority.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Kyle Allen, Mason Rudolph, Nick Stevens (both), Mike White

Running Back
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: Pretty much the same as last year, more or less. The Titans have two backs they might like who, if healthy, seem likely to eat up all or almost all of the work. Dion Lewis and Derrick Henry even complement each other better than Henry and DeMarco Murray did. But add a dollop of uncertainty, because we don’t know how much new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur likes Henry, and a level of risk, because Henry and Murray were pretty good substitutes in a way Henry and Lewis are not. For this reason, I think the Titans could easily look to add a pass game back who is a competent runner, most likely in the fourth round or later.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Nyheim Hines, Ito Smith (both), Akrum Wadley

Wide Receiver
Need at position: Moderate-high to high
Analysis: We as yet have no real clarity about what the Titans actually think about receivers, let alone their receivers. I’m still not sure what roles they might want to fill, or which roles existing players fit into. But we do know they only have five receivers with any sort of pedigree, both the Falcons and Rams when LaFleur was there carried at least six receivers, they lost Eric Decker from last year’s group and only veteran addition Michael Campanaro is more an Eric Weems replacement/upgrade than a player who would seem to have a shot at playing close to Decker’s 846 snaps, and they’ve worked out a few receivers. I just don’t know what kind of receiver they want, and specifically how important speed is to them; do they want their Taylor Gabriel or not? I can’t see it happening in the first round, but a possibility at any point thereafter.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Braxton Berrios, Keke Coutee, Steven Dunbar, Michael Gallup, Richie James, Andre Levrone, D.J. Moore, Dante Pettis

Tight End
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Base 2TE or base 3WR? Either way, the Titans have two receiving types in Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith and two blocky types in Luke Stocker and Phillip Supernaw. There’s no reason to carry more than 4, and 4 isn’t a lock. Maybe they look to upgrade on Supernaw or add a young player with Walker’s contract up after 2018 and Stocker also a veteran. Maybe, and even then only if the right player is there at the right spot in the draft.
Draft probability: 20%
Linked players: Ian Thomas, Deon Yelder

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Set at starter with two young players in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Set at backup with Dennis Kelly. With Conklin’s ACL recovery likely lasting into the season, they needed another lineman, so they signed Kevin Pamphile, who has tackle experience. If they need anything else, it’s another player who could play Week 1, if that’s not Pamphile or last year’s practice squadder Tyler Marz. As I noted last year, I like drafting developmental tackles, but with only one pick in the sixth and seventh rounds right now, it’s not likely.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Tyrell Crosby

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Low to moderate-low?
Analysis: The need here may be as low as the need at tackle, as the Titans have as yet shown no signs of being ready to move on from Ben Jones, Jones has both zone and power scheme experience, they re-signed Josh Kline to a legitimate deal this offseason, Corey Levin may be ready to step into Brian Schwenke’s vacated role as the gameday swing backup, and Xavier Su’a-Filo (and Pamphile) give them an option at left guard other than Quinton Spain. But we don’t know if they think Levin is ready for the swing backup role, they may be ready to move on from Ben Jones soon, and those may be names rather than an answer at left guard, so in a solid draft for the position adding an interior lineman makes a lot of sense. The more I think about it, though, the more I think the Titans are likely to think they’re in pretty good shape at the position and the more I keep moving down the draft probability.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Austin Corbett, Sean Welsh

Defensive Line
Need at position: Low to moderate
Analysis: The same question remains from my post before free agency about questions facing the Titans: do they want to upgrade their pass rush? Since then, they’ve re-signed DaQuan Jones, swapped Sylvester Williams for Bennie Logan, and released Karl Klug, their other primarily pass rush contributor in 2017 beyond Jurrell Casey. Was the pursuit of Ndamukong Suh a sign they really wanted more from the line, or more about adding a game-changer to a defense that doesn’t have enough of them? Defensive coordinator Dean Pees had more of a specialist pass rusher in Baltimore; Houston’s defense when Vrabel was position coach or coordinator did not. But the release of Karl Klug might be them saying they don’t need that player, that they have a solid top four of Jones, Logan, Casey, and Austin Johnson, and David King and Antwaun Woods, say, could be fine fifth players in the rotation who play a combined 400 snaps a year. Most likely, the probability I gave is either too high or too low, but I don’t know which. If they’re interested, most likely day three unless there’s a player of exceptional value.
Draft probability: 41%
Linked players: Abdullah Anderson (both), Andrew Brown, John Franklin-Myers, Julian Taylor (both)

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: High
Analysis: I don’t want to overcomplicate this one. It’s not as bad as wide receiver last year or offensive tackle in 2016, but the Titans need an outside linebacker who can play a significant role in 2018 and likely step into a larger one in 2019. Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan are both free agents after 2018 and are on the wrong side of the age curve. Erik Walden played 580 snaps in the regular season and was not re-signed, nor have they added any players at the position. Aaron Wallace is coming off a missed season and Kevin Dodd has done almost nothing in two seasons, so the Titans cannot trust either or both of them to fill Walden’s shoes. Given this edge rusher class, this pretty much has to be done in the first round.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: Dorrance Armstrong, Ade Aruna, Sam Hubbard, Arden Key, Uchenna Nwosu, Josh Sweat (both)

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate?
Analysis: I’ve been a bit all over the board in terms of what the Titans are likely to think they need here. One perspective would be that Wesley Woodyard is coming off a strong season, Jayon Brown should be better in his second season as a nickel linebacker, and Will Compton fills the void on base downs created by Avery Williamson’s (expected) departure in free agency. Daren Bates and Nate Palmer are around for special teams, and that’s that. The other part of me watches the New England game, remembers the Titans were the worst team in the league covering RBs per Football Outsiders (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), Woodyard is on the wrong side of the age curve and didn’t play in sub packages in 2016, and the Titans’ need for a legitimate three-down linebacker is still just as urgent as I thought it would be last year. Like offensive guard/center, the more I think about it, the more I want to keep lowering the draft probability. Like defensive line, though, this probability is either too high or too low.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Matt Adams, Oren Burks, Malik Jefferson, Dorian O’Daniel, Chris Worley

Cornerback
Need at position:  Low?
Analysis: The Titans have three significant investments at cornerback between the first-round pick they spent on Adoree Jackson last year, the big free-agent contract they gave to Logan Ryan last year, and the big free-agency contract they gave to Malcolm Butler this year. They’ve also said complimentary things about depth corners Kalan Reed, LeShaun Sims, and Tye Smith. Why, then, have the Titans had Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, players they would almost certainly have to draft in the first round, in for top 30 visits? I cannot answer this to my satisfaction, and I haven’t seen a satisfactory answer to the question from someone else, either. I still don’t think it happens, but I can’t rule it out, apparently at any point in the draft.
Draft probability: 30%
Linked players: Jaire Alexander, Rashard Fant, Rashaan Gaulden (alt: SAF), Josh Jackson (alt: SAF????), D.J. Reed (both)

Safety
Need at position: High
Analysis: This isn’t quite as simple as outside linebacker, but the base situation is pretty similar: the Titans lost (in this case, released) the third player at the position, who was called upon for a significant role in 2017, and have not yet replaced him. The Titans are in somewhat better shape here long-term than they are at OLB, plus a third player doesn’t have nearly the same guaranteed role, so this isn’t as much of a priority as outside linebacker. Also, don’t let your (also my) opinion of Johnathan Cyprien affect your judgment of need here too much. Still, my favorite for the Titans’ pick in the second round after an OLB in the first.
Draft probability: 90%
Linked players: Jessie Bates, Sean Chandler, Dane Cruikshank, Ronnie Harrison, Justin Reid, Armani Watts

Some Macro-Level Thoughts

The best summary I gave of the Titans’ 2016 draft before the draft was inadvertent, in a single tweet listing their top needs for 2016 as I saw them. The Titans then drafted in pretty much that order. Last year’s version of this post suggested a 2017 needs-based analysis said (1) the Titans were taking a receiver in the first round as their top priority, (2) the other first-round pick would be a corner, and (3) tight end was a big need but not as high a priority, so they would not take a TE in the first round. The Titans then drafted that way. Here’s what thinking about 2018 needs tells me about what the Titans are likely to do this year:

1. The Titans’ top need for 2018 is an outside linebacker. The limited depth of the class at the position means their first pick pretty much has to go here, because like WR at #5 last year, they can’t trust that a player they like will be there with their next pick.
2. Safety and wide receiver, likely but not absolutely in that order, stand out as the other two positions where the Titans need more to be able to line up and play Week 1. That makes them heavy favorites for the second and third round selections.
3. Picks at other positions, especially premium ones, are likely to be direct comments on other players on the roster. I don’t know which players those are right now, but I bet they exist, and we’ll probably be able to identify them after any such pick is made.

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Questions about the Titans I Can’t Answer to My Satisfaction

I’m getting the itch to write about the Titans, but (a) I’m not going to go back to writing regularly about the team, so there’s only so much I can say in the kind of thing I want to write, and (b) I’m finding it hard to write something I find satisfying. I’d love to write something like the wide receivers/tight ends analysis I wrote last February, but I can’t. To write that post, I relied on Mike Mularkey’s past record of over a decade running an NFL offense to identify roles and specifically running the Titans the year before to think about roles and which players might fit in those roles in the next season.

This offseason, though, things are different. Mike Vrabel is in his first year as a head coach, not just with the Titans but overall. He was only a defensive coordinator for one season, and that team still employed their previous, pretty successful coordinator. Dean Pees has a history as a defensive coordinator, but we cannot be sure just how much the defense will be a Dean Pees defense and a just how much a Mike Vrabel defense, so Pees’ history is not nearly as good a guide to what the Titans are likely to look like the next season as Mularkey’s history was. Matt LaFleur is in his second year as an offensive coordinator, and 2018 will be the first season he is in charge of designing and installing his own offense. We can look at his background for hints, but some of those will be contradictory.

With that in mind, here are some of the questions about the Titans offense I can’t answer to my satisfaction:

1. On offense, on base downs, will they look to line up more in 3-WR sets like the 2017 Rams or more 2-TE sets like Kyle Shanahan, likely LaFleur’s primary mentor, prefers? Mularkey was very heavily toward the 2-TE end of the scale, so my assumption is the Titans will play more 3-WR sets than they did last year, but just how much more?

2. What do they think of Derrick Henry, and specifically his pass game work? My assumption is the Titans will cut DeMarco Murray and add a back, but just how big a role will that back be expected to play? Will he play just on pass downs, or will they look to use him more in the base offense? General manager Jon Robinson has praised Henry’s pass game work from right after they drafted him to his recent combine press conference, but what I’ve seen on the field hasn’t made me comfortable. We should get an answer by the investment they make this offseason; if they win a bidding war for Jerick McKinnon, that could be one answer, while spending their fourth-round pick on a back like Mark Walton, Phillip Lindsay, or Akrum Wadley (to name three guys who might be there, or not) would be another.

3. Related to #1, what do they want from their tight ends, and do the guys on the roster provide that? If they look to be more of a 2-TE base offense, then Luke Stocker is playing a lot of snaps, they’re adding a blocking tight end (like perhaps Levine Toilolo, recently released by the Falcons), or both. If they’re planning to play mostly 3-WR sets, tight end becomes less of a need.

4. Also related to #1, what does a slot receiver look like? Sean McVay in Washington had Jamison Crowder, roughly speaking a short of shifty slot type. The 2016 Falcons, where LaFleur made the Super Bowl, had Taylor Gabriel, also short and undersized. McVay’s 2017 Rams had Cooper Kupp, a bigger player. Which will the Titans prefer? My guess is if they plan to be more of a 3-WR team, they’ll look for a bigger slot player.

5. Related to #1 and #4, what are the roles the Titans expect from their receivers? This was easy to pinpoint with Mularkey, which made it easy to identify potential inflection points. But the macro-level questions about the offense leave this completely wide open. I can try to roughly trait-map the Titans receivers to 2017 Rams receivers (Davis-Watkins, Matthews-Woods, Decker-Kupp, Taywan-Austin, etc), but I don’t even know if that’s at all a useful exercise. I expect Corey Davis to play a lot of snaps and get targeted a reasonable amount, and every other WR is up on the air to one degree or another.

6. Will the Titans worship at the Church of the Outside Zone? The base play for the Shanahan offense (also run by Gary Kubiak) is the outside zone run. Offensive linemen will rep it repeatedly, and everything in the offense builds off that play. When you can run it well, and complement it with things that work around it, things can be great as the 2016 Falcons showed. But Steve Sarkisian showed in Atlanta it’s not a play you dabble with. You either commit to it, work it as hard as possible, and build everything off it, or it should be a change-up to another thing.

7. Related to #6, just how interested are the Titans in remaking the interior of the offensive line? If they go heavy outside zone, Ben Jones’ Houston experience should guarantee his spot, Josh Kline probably becomes likelier to stay, and Quinton Spain probably isn’t ideal, but as an RFA, he’s cheap. If they look to run more inside zone or more of a diverse run game, Spain is probably a better fit, they’re probably looking to go away from Kline, and Jones is vulnerable if the right guy is out there.

Defensively, I don’t think the questions I have are as broad or as deeply interesting. Pees’ and Vrabel’s backgrounds, plus Vrabel’s comments, suggest the Titans will be going from one variety of 3-4 to a different variety of 3-4. There will be coverage questions, and specific personnel evaluations that matter, but this list isn’t as strong.

1. How much of a priority is adding more pass rushers to the defensive line? Per charting data at Football Outsiders (I write for FO perma-disclaimer), no Titans defensive lineman other than Jurrell Casey had more than 9.0 hurries. That includes Karl Klug, who didn’t have many hurries in 2016 either and who is around for passing downs. If they want more pass rush from DL, they should look to add a pass-rushing DL. If not, fine. If they want a pass rusher, they could look to make an investment, potentially even a major one. If they’re content with what they have, then a small move to fill out the rotation is likelier.

2. Like right guard and whether or not to re-sign Kline, the Titans are assuredly going to something to add to their depth at outside linebacker. Re-signing Erik Walden seems like a reasonable fallback plan. But the Titans are probably expecting something from Aaron Wallace and/or Kevin Dodd, and that could impact how much of another investment they look to make in the position. My assumption is they should look to draft an OLB at #25 and keep a fallback plan like Walden in mind if there’s nobody they like there. But that’s what I think the Titans should do, which has little to no bearing on what the Titans actually do.

3. Sub package: nickel or dime? The Titans have some decisions to make at inside linebacker, with Wesley Woodyard maybe better off as a 2-down player like he was in 2016, Jayon Brown largely a sub player last year, and free agency Avery Williamson largely a 2-down player in 2017. There’s not likely a good 3-down answer in free agency, so the Titans will likely be looking at either spending a high draft pick on a player or making do with more snaps from limited players. Or they could package their linebackers a lot and look to play dime.

4. Related to #3, how much more do they want or need at defensive back? The four starters seem fairly set between Logan Ryan and Adoree Jackson at corner, plus Kevin Byard and Johnathan Cyprien at safety. But we don’t know how they’ll match the defenders to the new scheme, and the Titans need at least five defensive backs to play regularly, six if they play dime, plus quality depth. Da’Norris Searcy is quality depth, but do they need more at safety? What about corners? Are these positions where they need to make a major investment, or are they largely content with what they have?

Overall, there’s one other question that impinges upon a couple of those questions specifically about Jon Robinson: how quickly is he willing to move on from his own players? When he arrived, he quickly cleared out many players Ruston Webster had acquired who had yet to meet expectations. It’s one thing to clean out somebody else’s garbage, though, and quite another to admit mistakes. To pick one disappointing player, will Kevin Dodd get another year if he’s not going to be a gameday active, simply because he was a second-round pick and you have to give high draft picks three years, as Webster said (and did), or would his roster spot be in jeopardy? J-Rob hasn’t had to confront this issue yet, partly because of that deadwood he inherited, but it could be one this offseason.

Some Thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Titans vs. My Expectations

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans.

This post is about the version of the Tennessee Titans we saw on the field in the 2017 season versus my pre-season expectations for what we might see. I’d been thinking about this post since a couple weeks to go in the regular season, planning to cover specifically pass game targets and the defensive line rotation, rather than the team more generally. The point of this post was to see just how accurate my predictions were, and where I went wrong.

Now, we’re in a little bit of a different place. My predictions were rooted, more or less explicitly, in the specific history of the coaching staff and with their past usage of the players they had going into 2017 and their past usage of players in general. The Titans have since fired Mike Mularkey and hired Mike Vrabel in his stead. Vrabel will be bringing in his own coordinators. That obviates some of the utility of the specific comparisons, so I’ll add to this post thoughts on the Titans as they were compared to some of my more general projections like those in my preview post or the Titans chapter I wrote in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017.

The Pass Game and Target Usage

There was a general thought among the fantasy football community and at least part of the fanbase that the volume of the Titans pass game would increase significantly from 2016. This was based on Matt Ryan’s third-year breakout, better talent at wide receiver, and general optimism about Marcus Mariota. I generally did not agree with those thoughts, considering Ryan’s volume increase from his second to third season a function of run game ineffectiveness, and expected at most a modest increase in pass game volume.

As it happened, in the regular season, Mariota went from 276 completions to 281 and the Titans as a team went from 307 completions to 306. This happened in kind of a funny way; like the Falcons from 2010 to 2011, the Titans run game fell off from the year before. Unlike in 2016, though, the Titans did not convert the ensuing third-and-medium/long at a high rate, nor did they operate as efficiently in most obvious passing situations like two-minute drill and when trailing. The situation was ripe for the Titans to throw the ball more, but they could not do so as effectively, so overall their volume numbers did not increase.

Looking at specific players, injuries to both starting wide receivers played a key role in how the Titans ended up targeting their receivers in 2017. First-round pick Corey Davis missed five games and was limited in another, so he finished the regular season with just 34 catches on 65 targets. The other starting receiver, Rishard Matthews, missed only two games, but that camouflages an important split in his role. After he came back from injury, he did not play as big a role in the offense. Before getting hurt, he was targeted on 20.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. After returning to the lineup, in the final six games (including postseason), he was targeted on just 14.6% of Mariota’s passing attempts. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that his hamstring injury had a lingering effect on his play.

The primary beneficiary of both of those injuries was Eric Decker. I was extremely pessimistic on his volume projection after the Titans signed him in June, guessing he might have as few as 20 catches. He finished with 54 total catches (on 83 targets). The more difficult question to answer is how many catches he might have had if neither Davis nor Matthews was injured. As Davis played only situationally in Week 1 against Oakland, I would say we only got three games where the Titans used their receivers like they planned to, Weeks 9-11 against the Ravens, Bengals, and Steelers. In those three games, Decker had a target share of 8.8%. Using his overall catch rate to project that over Marcus’s 478 attempts in the regular season*, that comes out to about 28 catches. That’s still not 20, but it’s only an extra catch every other week. Do I really think Decker’s volume basically doubled because of the injuries to Matthews and Davis? I find the idea plausible, but that’s probably at the upper end of the scale. The late season shift to more 3WR sets and things like the persistent difficulty with lining up correctly Taywan Taylor (16 catches v. my projected 20) showed even at New England I presume would have put him in the 30-35 catch range had neither Davis nor Matthews been injured.

*-EXPLANATORY NOTE: When I track receiver usage, I do it in a somewhat idiosyncratic way, so my numbers will be different than other people’s. First, I threw out the Cassel snaps. He targeted RBs and TEs more often than Marcus did, because he can’t throw long. Second, I include all plays, including those negated by penalty. A holding call, illegal shift, or defensive offside does not mean we necessarily should not nor cannot use the information we get from what the Titans did from that play. Thus, 478 attempts for Marcus when P-F-R clearly shows he had 453. For overall numbers, I also include the playoffs, so Marcus had 548 attempts in total. /fin

One of the things that was striking about the Titans pass game at midseason was how running backs almost disappeared. Backs accounted for 16% of pass game targets in 2016, a not-uncommon share for a Mularkey offense. RB target share was down markedly early in the season, as I noted at the time. After Mariota return from injury, though, it was at 14% for the rest of the year and finished at 12.5% overall from Marcus. The tight end position picked up the slack. No, it not all Jonnu Smith. In the 14.5 regular season games with Mariota, he had 13 catches, 1 off from my very modest expectation.

The real surprise at tight end was Delanie Walker. My expectation for him was 65 catches, matching his 2016 total (and in line with his 2014 total of 63). I thought, if anything, the new receivers might actually depress his volume. Instead, it increased. He finished the regular season with 74 catches, and was listed as the intended receiver on 22.8% of Marcus’s targets, up a bit from his use in 2016 (though still not where he was in 2015).

Defensive Line

My attempt to project the 2017 defensive line rotation came in March after the Titans re-signed Karl Klug, and was based around the idea the Titans were pretty much full-up at the position and there was no reason to expect them to draft Jonathan Allen or any other defensive linemen (and they indeed did not select a DL in April). The Titans would later add a defensive lineman, David King, but overall the five players I thought in March would get the work on the DL for the Titans did in fact get the work on the DL for the Titans.

As with receiver, though, a key injury would affect the rotation. DaQuan Jones was injured in the Week 13 game against the Texans, and his absence thereafter clearly affected playing time. But, unlike the Decker-Davis-Matthews issue, that gives us a good sample size for how the Titans probably planned to use their defensive tackles. So, here are how many snaps each DL was in line to play based on their playtime rate through Week 12 versus my March expectation.

Jurrell Casey-770 projected-830 pace
Austin Johnson-250 projected-258 pace
DaQuan Jones-650 projected-600 pace
Karl Klug-400 projected-323 pace
Sylvester Williams-450 projected-293 pace
David King-not projected-86 snaps

A few things stand out here:

1. DL snaps are mostly down across the board. I projected the Titans with almost exactly the same number of defensive line snaps they did in 2016. Even adding in David King, they were on pace to play about 5% fewer. I knew I was probably overprojecting a bit because of the possibility of additions, but part of this was probably also the 3 OLB package with Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, and Erik Walden, not signed until well after my tweet.

2. Jurrell Casey’s snaps were up, not down. The Titans played Casey 71% of the time he was active in 2016. That was a bit on the low end for players who play his position, but I thought they would likely stick around the same number. Nope, they decided to play their best DL about how often many teams played their best DL. That probably accounted for some of the “extra” snaps I tried to give Karl Klug.

3. Silly me, I thought that them giving Sly Williams a big money free agent contract meant they actually liked Sly Williams and he would therefore play a pretty significant role on defense. No dice, at least until Jones’ injury.

4. The Titans didn’t need another major contributor. King was active in just four of 12 games prior to Jones’ injury, and two of those were due to injury (Klug and Williams each missed a game, which I did not account for in my snaps projection). The hypothetical Allen selection truly would have been a zero-sum move with the five defensive linemen the Titans had. Contrast that with wide receiver, where three of the four biggest contributors were added after mid-March, or outside linebacker, where Walden, not signed until July, played a major role.

General Team Thoughts

Yay me: in my preview post here, published just before the Titans kicked off the regular season, I predicted the Titans would go 9-7 and make it to the postseason for the first time since 2008. In the Titans chapter I wrote for Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, I concluded by noting the Titans could win their first playoff game and then have their season ended with a resounding defeat to one of the AFC’s really good teams. All that stuff actually happened.

Overall, though, how the Titans got there presents a significant puzzle, one I don’t have an answer for myself and haven’t seen a good answer for from anybody else. As I noted in FOA17 and endlessly on Twitter, the Titans had a sharply bifurcated passing offensive performance in 2016: Marcus Mariota was fantastic in shotgun and not so good from under center.  In the 2017 regular season, by contrast, he was very good from under center (28.7% DVOA; I write for Football Outsiders perma-disclaimer) and not very good at all from shotgun (-15.3% DVOA). Play-action went from not being much of a strength at all to something that really helped the Titans.

This was at least kind of weird. The Titans did change over their receiving corps, but overall it doesn’t make that much sense that with the same quarterback, offensive design, and most of the same other players on offense that their offensive profile shifted so much. My best explanation for this is the default one, that on a level much smaller than the one on which I normally operate but one with which NFL coaches and coordinators are rightly heavily focused the Titans were easier to play against the pass from shotgun and harder to play the pass from under center, at least when they showed the run action. If I wanted to put this in my over-arching “Mularkey offense is bad” narrative, successful play-action can provide the misdirection that is the sine qua non for plays from those condensed formations that deny the quarterback much clarity in the pre-snap read to work. The lack of success from shotgun and not having great success from under center plays without play-action is a sign that, yes, the Titans were too easy to defend and needed a change at offensive coordinator.

The preceding couple paragraphs are really important for the Titans offense in 2018 and beyond as Mike Vrabel’s search for an offensive coordinator continues. While it’s a subject worth revisiting later, it’s kind of orthogonal to the point I was trying to make here. More on point is the point I tried to make about the questions the Titans offense faced in that preview post.

Ha ha, silly me. In that post, I wrote “So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role.” In fact, the Titans’ answer was “play Jonnu Smith, even if he’s not good at that essential task.” The third tight end, whether Phillip Supernaw or Luke Stocker averaged 16 snaps a game, down a bit from 2016. Six offensive linemen sets were present but rare, about six-seven a game. Smith instead was asked to do largely what Anthony Fasano did, even though he was a significant downgrade as a blocker. The Titans’ run game suffered accordingly. This did not make sense. This never made any sense. This never had the potential to make sense. I’d probably better leave it at that.

Defensively, I was pretty sure Logan Ryan would be the nickel slot player, as he ended up being. My questions revolved around the two outside corners, specifically when Adoree Jackson would take the field as a starter and who would play the other outside corner spot in nickel. With LeShaun Sims out for Week 1 with an injury, Jackson made his first start then and held on to the job all year long. The other outside corner spot ended up being a mix of Sims, Brice McCain, and, late in the season, Tye Smith.

My other big defensive questions were about how the Titans would play, if they would be able to resolve the dilemma around whether they were a rush-5 team and if Kevin Byard in those situations would be the deep safety or a coverage player or rusher or if they could be effective as a rush-4 team. It’s Dick LeBeau, so we still saw plenty of 5-man rushes. Ultimately, I don’t think the Titans ever came any closer to solving this dilemma in a satisfactory way than I expected them to, to their detriment as a defense. By DVOA, they were virtually unchanged, going from 18.8% pass defense DVOA in 2016 to 19.0% in 2017. (To judge defensive quality, I pay absolutely zero attention to the NFL’s official rankings by yardage; per play efficiency, adjusted for opponent and situation, is so much more insightful.) Compared to my preseason expectations, that’s okay but not great. But if you look at it from the perspective that the Titans paid big money to Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien and spent a first-round pick on Jackson, only to not improve at all, you should be disappointed.

Now, the Titans will have a new coaching staff. Terry Robiskie and Dick LeBeau will not return. The offense will presumably look a lot more like the rest of the NFL does, with more use of three receiver sets (something the Titans did turn to late in the season) and shotgun on early downs. The defense may still look broadly similar at first glance, though many details may change. We’ll find out more about those when Mike Vrabel hires the new coordinators, and we’ll see how they choose to solve or avoid some of those issues I just detailed and ones of their own.

Key Questions for the Fate of the 2017 Titans

The latest of my occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. 

With the start of the regular season soon upon us, now is the time people who write about the NFL from time to time are asked to make predictions about the upcoming season. As of writing this, I have just submitted my info for the 2017 staff predictions article at Football Outsiders. Outcomes, though, are the result of dynamic processes. Any dope can, like me, predict the Seahawks beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, or that the Jets get the first pick in the draft and select a quarterback. What’s more interesting, at least to me, is how they get there-that the Seahawks move Sheldon Richardson to offensive tackle, where he suddenly becomes the reincarnation of Walter Jones, except that he plays both ways, so he’s also the reincarnation of Chuck Bednarik, or that the Jets clinch the #1 pick by having their punter boot the ball out of their end zone for a safety instead of taking a knee to seal a 1-point win (two things I would love to see happen but expect to never occur).

It’s easy to predict the Tennessee Titans to win the AFC South, what with the Houston Texans offense, the Indianapolis Colts being without Andrew Luck for an as-yet-indeterminable amount of time, and the Jacksonville Jaguars continuing whatever it is they’ve been doing. What interests me most, though, is which version of the 2017 Titans we end up seeing on the field on Sundays (and, for the first time in a few years, also Monday night). This is a question not just of where exactly among the range of outcomes the Titans fare, but also exactly which of the possible versions of the 2017 Titans the coaching staff will make it a priority to deploy in games. There are serious questions of fundamental identity for both the offense and the defense for which we do not have good answers. I will address each side of the ball in turn.

Offense
Adding wide receivers Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in the first and third rounds of this year’s NFL draft, plus Marcus Mariota’s experience in a spread at Oregon, has led some people to believe that the Titans will look more like a “normal” NFL offense and less like the “Exotic Smashmouth” that in 2016 ranked last in their usage of three or more receivers and last in percentage of passes called when leading in the second half (to pick two stats from the tables in my Titans chapter in Football Outsiders Almanac 2017, still available in PDF and dead tree). I am not and have never been one of those people. We may see somewhat more three receiver sets, and slightly fewer runs, but for Mariota’s passing attempts to take a big jump like former Mike Mularkey pupil Matt Ryan’s did in his third season will require at least one of (a) the Titans’ run game or (b) their defense to significantly decline, putting the Titans in more passing situations-third-and-longs and down more than a score and with fewer leads. Could happen, but I doubt it.

The big question for me is how effective the Titans will be in those multiple tight end sets they used 55% of the time on first and second downs in the first 28 minutes of games last year, and specifically how they will respond to the loss of blocking tight end Anthony Fasano. Fasano was a key player for the 2016 Titans, playing 535 snaps even though he was a non-factor in the passing game (17 targets). This preseason, the second tight end with Delanie Walker has been rookie third-round pick Jonnu Smith. Game four of the preseason normally tells us little, but one play said a lot to me, crystallizing the Titans’ dilemma. Smith was lined up as an in-line player on a run to that side. He met Kevin Pierre-Louis at the point of attack, and KPL (a weakside linebacker listed at 230 pounds who failed to find a significant role on defense his first three seasons with Seattle) met Smith and defeated him, forcing running back David Fluellen to bounce. That cannot happen regularly if the Titans are to be successful doing what they did last year, and if asked to be the in-line player, Smith would have to face many players much harder to block than KPL.

So, Delanie Walker’s not that guy. Jonnu Smith’s not that guy. Those are the top two tight ends, and neither of them can fill a fundamental role in how the Titans played in base offensive sets last year. The Titans have a decision to make-they can ask somebody else to do that, who doesn’t present the same threat as a receiver that Smith and Walker do, or they can go without that role. If they decide to play another player, then there are two obvious options. First, they could ask the third tight end, Phillip Supernaw, to do that. He played with Fasano in some 2-TE sets last year and while he wouldn’t be as good as Fasano, he likely would be better than Smith. Second, lots of six offensive linemen, particularly Dennis Kelly. The Week 1 opponent Raiders provided a model of what this could look like. Their fine blocking tight end Lee Smith was injured early last season, and Oakland responded by giving basically all of his snaps to an extra offensive linemen. That’s one thing as an in-season adjustment, though, and another thing to go into the season with that as their primary plan and without an apparent backup. Like Supernaw as the Fasano replacement, this is something I would have expected to see in the preseason if it was going to be common.

The outside answer is “play more three receiver sets.” This is a bad answer. Walker often played in-line in 11 personnel, but he normally goes out for a pass route there. He’s a fine blocker for what he is, but he’s undersized for a tight end, only 6’0″, and cannot control edge players at the point of attack the way Fasano did, and the problems with the other potential solutions I went through remain.

The other potential answer is “play without an in-line tight end.” This is also problematic for a couple reasons. First, you need an eligible receiver on both ends of the line of scrimmage. The X receiver (likely Davis for as many snaps as he can play) is one of them, but the problem is at the other end of the line. Mularkey’s offense uses plenty of presnap motion with the Z receiver, to get the defense flowing one way and to set up blocking angles in the run game. That’s out if he has to stay on the line of scrimmage and cover up the offensive tackle. Second, not having an in-line tight end takes away a gap at the line of scrimmage the defense must account for, which means more defensive players are free to flow to the ball. It’s possible to get 2 off-ball defenders flowing the wrong way and get big gains that way. It’s harder to get 3 defenders flowing the wrong way. Third, those same defenders are still out on the field. Aligning, say, Smith and Walker as wing players and H-backs, may give them better angles against bigger edge players, but they’ll still have to sometimes block bigger edge players. Better matchups for Tennessee, perhaps, but still not great ones. Fourth, part of the run game playbook from last year’s extremely successful offense will have to go. It wouldn’t surprise me if Mularkey and offensive coordinator Terry Robiskie spent much of their time revamping the offense this offseason on just this plan, but it would have been a lot easier to get a better blocker so you could keep doing what you already do well and build off that.

Another outside answer is “play more three receiver sets, by which we mean change the offense.” Another potential path for the Titans this offseason would have been to do more on improving the wide receivers and transitioning from their base offense last year, with its condensed formations, multiple tight end looks, and run orientation, to something that looks more like what Mariota played in at Oregon (and where most of the rest of the NFL is, at least to a greater degree). There have been no indications the Titans are actually planning to do this. We saw more of those same condensed formations and multiple tight end looks in the preseason, and all the insider chatter, from May when that sort of chatter started onward, has suggested more of the same.

So what the heck do I think the Titans are going to do? I’m not confident in my answer, which is why I just wrote all the above. What makes the most sense to me, given Fasano’s limited role in the passing game, is plenty of 6OL sets, but we’ll probably see at least a little bit of all of the above.

Defense
The Titans finished last year 27th in pass defense DVOA. They remade their secondary this offseason, with free agent acquisitions Logan Ryan and Johnathan Cyprien starting at corner and safety, Kevin Byard stepping into a bigger role at safety, and LeShaun Sims, who finished fifth among Titans corners in snaps, starting at the other corner spot (though not in Week 1 against Oakland because of injury).

The questions here revolve around how the Titans ended up playing defense much of last season. They ranked first in the NFL in percentage of 5-man rushes in all situations, and had more plays in sub package defense (at least 5 DBs) where they rushed 5 players than any other team in the NFL. Behind those frequent 5-man rushes, the Titans played a lot of cover-1 looks, with a single high safety and man coverage on the eligible receivers. Their cornerbacks, particularly outside corners Perrish Cox and Jason McCourty, could not hold up in coverage. Should we expect better from this year’s group?

Ryan’s the big added name. He’s a fine player, general manager Jon Robinson is very familiar with him, and New England played plenty of man coverage. I have two specific strong concerns about his fit in Nashville, though. First, what the Titans were to 5-man rushes, New England was to 3-man rushes. Combined with man coverage, this given Bill Belichick and company the ability to double potentially multiple players on the opposing defense. Depending on the matchup, his teammates could give Ryan much more help in Foxborough than he will receive with the Titans unless they completely change how they play defense. Second, in the highest and best version we saw of New England’s defense last year, in sub packages, Ryan played slot, not on the outside. The Titans return last year’s slot corner, Brice McCain. McCain led the position group in snaps and was, if only by default, the group’s best player. If Ryan does play slot in sub packages, the Titans will still need two outside corners, and the other options are even more questionable.

McCain is a useful slot corner. We’ve seen him play outside corner before, and the results were sub-optimal. Sims won the other starting job; he had a solid last four games after a rough first outing against Chicago, but going from a couple hundred snaps to key starter is a big jump. Eventually Adoree’ Jackson will be a starter, but it would take a particularly strong performance in Week 1 to keep permanently a job he’ll likely have earned by injury; I’m skeptical of all rookie corners, he’s undersized so NFL receivers will look to body him early (and this happened some at USC last year), and his first look against NFL starters in Preseason Week 3 against Chicago wasn’t impressive. The Titans have suggested they’re even more skeptical of other potential answers.

The other significant question about the sub package defense is who plays the single high position if the Titans continue to play as much Cover-1. The obvious answer is Kevin Byard, who did well there in college. Cyprien is equally obvious as a non-answer for that role if you watched him play in Jacksonville. But Byard was nearly as obvious an answer last year, when he was deployed largely as a cover player, likely due to his athleticism and ability to match up in man coverage, while Da’Norris Searcy played the deep safety role. Searcy is back, so the Titans could do something similar again, but we just don’t know.

One potential answer for these problems is to not rush 5 as often, so the Titans have an extra defender to devote to coverage help, whether in a shift to two-high, as a robber, to double a dangerous opponent, or some mix and matching among those and other possibilities. The problem with that last year is the Titans could not get home with just four players, ranking in the bottom five in the league in pressure rate in those situations.

It’s hard to see Dick LeBeau shifting from a pressure-oriented coordinator to Belichick’s coverage-oriented schemes, so my questions about the defense revolve more around how the defensive question marks play than the offensive questions about scheme and deployment. How well, then, do I expect this to work? The top three pass rushers are all veterans, and I don’t see much reason to expect notable internal improvement there. The best case scenario is probably something like we saw in 2015, where the top three work just well enough that the Titans come out around average in pass defense as long as none of the top three gets hurt. The downside is the Titans defense against the pass is as bad as or worse than it was last year.

Conclusion-Type Thoughts

I don’t really know how the Titans are going to play offense in base personnel. I don’t trust the Titans to play well in pass defense. Fortunately, they’re in the AFC South, where all you have to do to go 9-7 is to stop shooting yourself in the foot without then starting to bang your head into a brick wall. These questions, while I believe they’re significant, are nowhere near as problematic as the obvious potential problems in 2014 and 2015 that caused the Titans to go 5-27 and end up with the second and first overall picks. 9-7 and a playoff berth, ho!

Bonus Fantasy Appendix

Mike Mularkey has spent his entire career as a head coach and offensive coordinator (except when he was running Scott Linehan’s offense in Miami in 2006 or adapting Ken Whisenhunt’s offense as an interim coach in 2015) throwing the ball to no more than three players in the pass game. But I’m a bit more skeptical of Corey Davis because of how much time he’s missed with injury and expect him to be eased into the lineup. If he recovers reasonably quickly, then I’d expect him to end up with 45 or so catches and Eric Decker in the 25-30 catch range. Right now, I’d be staying way the heck away from each player in non-daily fantasy, and would also not touch Jonnu Smith (Mularkey offense TE2 has never hit 20 catches in a season).

DeMarco Murray’s rushing numbers last season were inflated by a very easy schedule of opposing run defenses. This is probably the best reason to expect the Titans to have to throw the ball more, though I expect this to be only a modest effect (remember, they were already a bottom six pass defense last year, and my likely scenario for them is around that mark, not 2015 Saints). Derrick Henry’s fantasy upside remains entirely focused on injury; a more sensible workload management for Murray gives him 8-10 carries a game instead of the 1-4 he got some games last year. But I’m thinking 10-15 more (team) pass attempts, not 50 or more, and improvement at wide receiver should by better efficiency offset any increase created by fewer favorable down-and-distance situations.

Tennessee Titans 2017 Roster Prediction as Training Camp Opens

The latest in an irregular series of posts about the Tennessee Titans.

For the past dozen seasons, around the start of training camp, I have predicted which players the Tennessee Titans would keep when they cut down the roster to 53. I may have abandoned blogging regularly about the team, but this is an interesting enough exercise to keep me at it.

The intro, largely cribbed from past attempts at the task:

Each season, the day the Tennessee Titans players report to training camp, I attempt to predict which players they will keep after the cutdown all the way to 53. Some years this goes kind of okay,  while in other years I end up on quixotic quests and stick on them long after it becomes obvious they are indeed quixotic quests. Most years, I’m happy to get 48 of the 53 right at this stage of the game, as the inevitable injuries, surprises, and attempts to be clever that don’t work out happen.

Last year, I got 45 of the 53 players who would be on the roster Week 1. Subsequent personnel moves explained some of the misses, as four of the players were not on the roster when camp opened, while getting the positional mix wrong explains some of the others (3 QB and 6 DL instead of my prediction 2 QB and 7 DL, for example). But I also flubbed a couple depth chart orderings that look bad in hindsight. So, here’s a chance to do better.

This is what the positional mix looked like for Week 1 last year:

QB: 3
RB/FB: 4
WR: 6
TE: 4
OL: 9
DL: 6
LB: 9
DB: 9
ST: 3

The Titans still have the same head coach and coordinators, so this might be a useful guide for what they’ll do this year. In putting together this roster prediction, I relied a great deal on what players the Titans suited up for games last year. I think that gives us an extremely useful guide for the 46-man active roster, but the other 7 players remain a hodgepodge. They could credibly keep a third QB (not active on gameday) over a ninth offensive lineman (not active on gameday) or vice versa, and the only thing I can do from my couch is try to guess along with them.

QB (3): Matt Cassel, Marcus Mariota, Alex Tanney
Analysis: Two or three? If it’s two, Casssel or Tanney? My guess would be Cassel. The Titans have hit a point with Tanney where figuring out his role bothers me. As noted above, I didn’t expect them to keep three last year (though Tanney would spend most of the season on the practice squad). This is one of those variable roster spots, and there’s no way I would feel too comfortable with any prediction.

RB/FB (4): Jalston Fowler (FB), Derrick Henry, Khalfani Muhammad, DeMarco Murray
Analysis: Three chalk names, and Muhammad provides enough of a change-up and the ability to play special teams my guess is he’s in much better shape to make the team than most seventh-round picks as long as he keeps up his end of the bargain in training camp. David Fluellen is RB3/4, but I see him more as Henry/Murray insurance and to give the rest of the team similar looks. If they keep a different third RB not for injury reasons, my guess is that player is not on the roster right now.

WR (6): Corey Davis (unsigned), Eric Decker, Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, Taywan Taylor, Eric Weems
Analysis: I feel pretty good about Davis, Decker, Matthews, and Taylor as the four receivers who dress weekly and play on offense. The other two spots are up in the air. Sharpe only played one position last year and doesn’t play special teams, so even as the predicted inactive they could prefer Harry Douglas over him. But Decker fits the same role as Douglas and is up weekly, so I don’t see them with a need for that role. Weems will depend on how comfortable the Titans are with other returners, both kick and punt, and a numbers game for the special teams positions he plays. He could potentially be competing with, say, Demontre Hurst for a spot on the 46/53.

TE (3): Jonnu Smith, Phillip Supernaw, Delanie Walker
Analysis: Three good names, but is there a space for a fourth, and is that player potentially on the roster? I think the Titans would probably like to have a mini-tackle. Unless Supernaw is a much better blocker, I doubt they see one on the current roster. Then, it’s the waiver wire or trade, playing 6OL, or changing the offense. My current favorite is plenty of 6OL sets. With the addition of Smith, I don’t see any potential role for Jace Amaro.

OL (8): Jack Conklin, Ben Jones, Dennis Kelly, Josh Kline, Tim Lelito, Corey Levin, Taylor Lewan, Quinton Spain
Analysis: Six chalk names in Conklin, Jones, Kelly, Lelito, Lewan, and Spain, then the two wild cards. With a good offseason, Sebastian Tretola could have maybe challenged Kline at right guard, but he had a bad one. My guess is they stick with Kline at right guard, but if he loses his starting spot, is there a need to keep him around as a regular backup? My guess is Josue Matias is also on the “starter or out” train. Kelly and Lelito are your gameday backups, and both have 6OL experience. Levin gets the iOL inactive spot, and I did not choose to make room for Brad Season as OL9.

DL (6): Mehdi Abdesmad, Jurrell Casey, Austin Johnson, DaQuan Jones, Karl Klug, Sylvester Williams
Analysis: Gameday actives: Casey, Johnson, Jones, Klug, Williams. Then it’s a matter of what they want for the backup. If they want a pure NT, Antwan Woods is the favorite. A vet, Angelo Blackson. Something else, somebody else. The biggest risk I see is Klug’s return to form after his Achilles injury, but I’m not fully confident in which player they would keep if they’re concerned about him.

LB (10): Daren Bates, Jayon Brown, Kevin Dodd, Derrick Morgan, Brian Orakpo, Nate Palmer, Erik Walden, Aaron Wallace, Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard
Analysis: Grouping inside linebackers and outside linebackers together is bad practice, but I did it anyway.

Outside linebackers: they’re in a rough spot with Dodd, counting on him but not comfortable with it. But I think with three guys for defensive purposes he’s number three with maybe Wallace and Palmer as primarily special teams players who are active. Or maybe they keep Walden up over Wallace. But I think all those guys make the team.

Inside linebackers: Brown, Williamson, and Woodyard play on defense. Bates is up for special teams purposes. I came up with a flex active spot and had Palmer penciled in there for his positional versatility and special teams value. That they re-signed him early in free agency means they like him, right?

DB (10): Kevin Byard, Johnathan Cyprien, Demontre Hurst, Adoree Jackson, Brice McCain, Logan Ryan, Da’Norris Searcy, LeShaun Sims, D’Joun Smith, Brynden Trawick
Analysis: Grouping together corners and safeties is also bad practice, but I did that anyway too.

Four good names at safety in Byard, Cyprien, Searcy, and Trawick. I don’t see a fifth.

Four names at corner I think are good in Jackson, McCain, Ryan, and Sims. Hurst is this year’s Valentino Blake, a veteran who can play special teams and be trusted not to screw up too badly as long as you don’t ask him to cover good players or often. LeBeau often keeps a lot of defensive backs, so I gave them D’Joun Smith as an extra corner. But that could easily be Kalan Reed or somebody else.

ST (3): Beau Brinkly, Brett Kern, Ryan Succop
Analysis; Chalk, chalk, chalk. The open questions are at returner, and those affect other positions.

Where will I be wrong?
1. I kept 24 offensive players and 26 defensive players. That’s the same as my roster projection last year, but the Titans actually kept 26 offensive players and 24 defensive players for Week 1.
2. Special teams roles are a mess. I don’t have a well-formulated idea of what they’re looking for at each position, so I may have too many R4/5 and not enough R2/3. Or vice versa.
3. They’ll inevitably make a roster move or two, like the ones they made last year and the year before.
4. I’m too used to no undrafted free agents making the team, so I do not project them to make it barring overwhelming evidence to the contrary. They could easily keep a player below my radar over, say, Tajae Sharpe.
5. The late sixth and seventh rounds are basically UDFA-plus, so it’s a mistake to prioritize those players over other ones.
6. Offensive line, defensive line, and corner stand out as positions where marginal players make the most improvement out of sight. I haven’t even listened to, say, Mike Mularkey’s press conference when players reported yesterday, so I easily be wrong at those positions in particular.
7. Injuries. One year I believe I got 46 (of 54) right, but seven of my misses were because players were placed on injured reserve after the start of camp.
8. I’m a guy who sits on his couch in Illinois and makes stuff up. People who talk to people who work inside St. Thomas Sports Park may know important things I do not. I also do not think like Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey, but they’re the ones in charge of this project, so I try to think like I think they might think, and without that “talking to people” check, so I end up going on quixotic crusades no matter how much I try not to. Thus, getting 48 of 53 right is a performance I would be happy with given all the other stuff.

Tennessee Titans 2017 Draft Preview by Position

The latest in a series of occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans, posted here because I no longer maintain a separate Titans blog. “What I’ve been reading” coming after the end of April.

One of the staples of my pre-draft coverage for years has been a draft preview by position, including probabilities of selecting a player at each position. Especially because this will be my only pre-draft post, I will also note players the Titans have been linked to with a reported visit or private workout (via Titans Report compilation).

Mandatory mention for this post: the Titans currently hold 8 picks in the 2016 NFL draft. To be as realistic as possible, I wanted the sum of the draft probabilities at each position to add up to 7.0. If the probability at any particular position looks too high to you, well, it probably looks too high to me as well. But to get the total to 7.0, the probabilities all look too high. I know, 7.0 is still short of 8, but (a) it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Titans end up making seven selections by making a trade or two, and (b) the sixth and seventh rounds are prime spots for value- and UDFA-related picks where positional need matters much less, so they’re ripe for doubling up on a need position (like Kalan Reed last year) or picking a non-need slot (the David Howard pick a few years ago). If things go true to form, the Titans will hit all but one of the positions I have them rated as highly likely to draft while hitting one of the positions I think it much less likely they will draft.

I should note that, as much as I can, this post attempts to describe what the Titans might think based on how I think the Titans might think. Jon Robinson and Mike Mularkey will be setting the direction and making the decisions for the team, so I try to think how they would think. What I would do if I ran the Titans is (a) in some cases quite different and (b) completely irrelevant in terms of predicting what the Titans will do.

Quarterback
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Marcus Mariota is the starter. Matt Cassel is the trusted veteran backup. Alex Tanney is the third quarterback. What you may think of Cassel as a backup is irrelevant; the Titans seem to value him a lot, so he will be there. Though Tanney was on the roster Week 1 last year, I do not believe the Titans will look to keep a third quarterback. I will interpret any early quarterback pick as a sign that Mariota’s injury may be much more severe than we believe it to be. Possible late, but I doubt it.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Josh Dobbs

Running Back
Need at position: Moderate-low
Analysis: The Titans did not tender RFA RB3 Antonio Andrews, and did not add a veteran, so they may have a need at the position. But last year they kept DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry and cut Dexter McCluster, and Andrews had almost no role on offense (9 snaps). That surprised me because Mike Mularkey had had a pass game back/satellite player on his team. They could look to add one of those, a more all-around back, or a grinder. Or just roll with Murray, Henry, and maybe dive into the UDFA market and perhaps not even keep a third RB. I think they’ll draft a back, but I do not see it as a priority.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Kareem Hunt, Marlon Mack

Wide Receiver
Need at position: High
Analysis: The Titans’ top four at wide receiver is currently Rishard Matthews, Tajae Sharpe, and Harry Douglas. The more perspicacious of you will note that list has three names on it. Yes, the Titans do currently have more than three receivers on the roster, but that’s the way I think they think of it. I went in depth on the Titans and their potential needs at receiver in February. Since then, they lost who I thought they would lose and have not added anybody, so what I wrote there is still largely true. The Titans could, and probably will, look to draft two receivers: an X to replace Sharpe, probably early, and a slot-type, probably in the middle rounds. I am not as convinced as other people seem to be that plus speed will be a priority, which in practical terms means I think Mike Williams at #5 is much more likely than other people think.
Draft probability: 100% of one, 60% of a second
Linked players: Kendrick Bourne, B.J. Bunn, Corey Davis, Chris Godwin, Zay Jones, John Ross, Da’Morea Stringfellow, Noel Thomas, Mike Williams, DeAngelo Yancey

Tight End
Need at position: High
Analysis: I also covered tight ends in that February post, including why I did not believe (and still do not believe) the Titans are likely to be interested in spending a high pick on either O.J. Howard or David Njoku. But they did lose Anthony Fasano, so the primary blocking tight end role is still open. Phillip Supernaw could help fill that void, as could playing an extra offensive lineman like Dennis Kelly or Tim Lelito. With this year regarded as one of the best tight end classes in history, however, the Titans are nearly certain to draft a tight end. I expect a competent in-line blocker in the middle rounds.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: O.J. Howard, David Njoku, Adam Shaheen, Jonnu Smith

Offensive Tackle
Need at position: Low
Analysis: Set at starter with two young players in Taylor Lewan and Jack Conklin. Set at backup with Dennis Kelly. Mularkey has carried nine offensive linemen before, and I feel like developmental tackles the way other people feel about developmental quarterbacks, so it could happen. But probably not, not with this tackle class, and not with seemingly everybody else looking for a starter.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Corey Levin, Brad Seaton, Darrell Williams

Offensive Guard/Center
Need at position: Moderate
Analysis: The Titans are set at center with Ben Jones and at gameday swing backup with Lelito. Quinton Spain should hold down one guard spot. Josh Kline returns at the other one, and Sebastian Tretola could challenge him. But Kline was a waiver wire pickup, and Tretola is a sixth-round pick who played 3 snaps. We do not really know just how much the Titans like either player. And they’re keeping 5 interior players, likely, so they could add competition for those two. I’m not sure how their need for an immediate starter fits with the weakness of this line class, though. If Forrest Lamp at #18 is the only hope for a 2017 upgrade on Kline/Tretola barring The Magical Trade-Back Fairy giving them a second-round pick, then they may not draft one at all.
Draft probability: 50%
Linked players: Jordan Morgan, Chase Roullier

Defensive Line
Need at position: Low
Analysis: The Titans regularly dress five defensive linemen. They have on their roster Jurrell Casey (paid a lot, very good), DaQuan Jones (played a lot in 2016, generally well regarded for what he is), Sylvester Williams (whom they signed to a bigger contract than I thought he’d get in free agency), Karl Klug (re-signed early in free agency notwithstanding an injury that may leave him on the shelf until training camp), and Austin Johnson (second-round pick last year). That does not include Angelo Blackson (fourth-round pick a couple years ago), or Anquan Woods or Mehdi Abdesmad (UDFA they liked last year, who spent most of the season on the practice squad and were signed late on the roster). I do not believe the Titans will draft a defensive lineman at all unless they see him as an exceptional value relative to the draft slot and a clear upgrade on a player they have.
Draft probability: 10%
Linked players: Jonathan Allen, Davion Belk, Rod Henderson, Grover Stewart

Outside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate-low?
Analysis: They’re set at starter with Brian Orakpo and Derrick Morgan. The questions I have are behind them. To create a decent rotation, you need backups to play 550 spots. Pencil in Aaron Wallace for 10 snaps a game, so are they comfortable counting on Kevin Dodd for 400 snaps, more if Morgan or Orakpo is on the shelf again? I would not be, but nor would I have taken Dodd anywhere close to where the Titans did. Their interest in Erik Walden suggests they may not be absolutely comfortable, especially given Mularkey mentioned at the pre-draft presser Dodd was still not completely healthy, and I still believe this is a position they could look to add a player, even with a high pick. As I’ve considered things more, though, I’ve come to see this as a less of a priority and more of a like to draft, if the right player is there at the right value.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Derek Barnett, Keionta Davis (DL?), Charles Harris, Steven Rhodes

Inside Linebacker
Need at position: Moderate-high
Analysis: Pretty simple here. Sean Spence played a lot in coverage situations for the Titans in 2016. The Titans did not re-sign Sean Spence. There is no replacement for him on the roster. The Titans are therefore very likely interested in adding a cover linebacker in the draft, and potentially interested in adding a three-down linebacker if there is one available they like. I can’t see it happening at #5, but a possibility for any subsequent pick. But they could probably get by with Avery Williamson, Wesley Woodyard, and some Big Nickel and dime if they had to.
Draft probability: 82%
Linked players: Jordan Evans, Reuben Foster, Haason Reddick, Jaylon Reeves-Maybin, Duke Riley

Cornerback
Need at position: High
Analysis: The Titans are drafting at least one cornerback, and could draft more than one like they did last year. The biggest question is, just how high? I keep going back to that Dick LeBeau has been a defensive coordinator or head coach in the NFL more than 25 years, and his teams have never, ever, not once spent a first-round pick on a cornerback, and I’ll keep repeating that until I see somebody I haven’t talked to mention that. I cannot completely rule it out in the first round, after the Titans played so much man coverage last year, but with the depth of the class I see it as likely a third-round priority.
Draft probability: 99%
Linked players: Jamal Agnew, Chidobe Awuzie, Gareon Conley, Jeremy Cutrer, Corn Elder, Randall Goforth, Adoree Jackson, Marshon Lattimore, Obi Melifonwu (S?), Cam Sutton

Safety
Need at position: Moderate-low?
Analysis: At safety, the Titans have (a) Kevin Byard, about whom they have said nothing but good things since drafting him in the third round last year, (b) Johnathan Cyprien, whom they gave a big free agent contract to this offseason, (c) Da’Norris Searcy, a natural SS who played some single high last year and therefore could easily fill in as either Byard or Cyprien’s backup, and (d) Brynden Trawick, a special teams player whose work on defense GM Jon Robinson praised after signing him this offseason. Against this, you have (1) months of Jamal Adams being mocked to the Titans at #5, both before and after Cyprien’s signing, and (2) Mike Mularkey’s comment in March about the Titans liking their safety rotation. It’s a good safety class, so it could happen. But I don’t see it as nearly as likely or as much of a priority for them as most draftniks and fans seem to think it is.
Draft probability: 60%
Linked players: Jamal Adams (maybe), Josh Jones, Leon McQuay

Some Macro-Level Thoughts
I inadvertently gave my best summary of the Titans’ approach to the draft last year in a single tweet noting their 2016 needs. My top need was OT; their first pick was OT. My second need was OLB; their second pick was OLB. By third need was DL; their third pick was DL. I grouped needs 4-6 together (S, RB, CB); those ended up being their 5th, 4th, and 7th picks. WR would have been my seventh need, had I listed one; it was their sixth pick. Based on one year of data, the Titans appear to be an extremely needs-focused drafting team. Applying this same rubric to 2017, here’s what it suggests:

A. WR will be a first-round pick;
B. CB is a strong contender for a first-round pick; and
C. TE is a bit tricky-a strong need, but their need is for a blocker rather than a receiver or all-around player, which means it does not need to be a first-round priority.

Whether they take G, ILB, S, RB, OLB, or second WR, and in what order, will likely be a function of board and value rather than based on need priority. This is not to say the Titans cannot prioritize different things than I think they prioritize and select a player I do not see as a priority need with a high pick, like a Jonathan Allen or Jamal Adams at #5. As noted above, I am trying to think like I think J-Rob and Mularkey think, but I only know or can guess so much about what they believe, and they may believe things I do not know, think, or guess they believe. Any pick at #5 other than a WR will tell us something, but my guess is the real answers we get from Tennessee start at #18.

Some Thoughts on the Titans, Wide Receivers, and Tight Ends

The latest in a series of occasional posts about the Tennessee Titans. I’ll probably have another Titans post in the next couple weeks looking at the roster heading into free agency, and will definitely have a big pre-draft post along the lines of last year’s.

One of the things you see a fair amount in mock drafts around the interwebz is a tight end, whether O.J. Howard or David Njoku, projected to the Tennessee Titans with the 18th pick. The connection is a natural one. The Titans give a lot of snaps to tight ends. The Titans only have one veteran tight end under contract for 2017. The Titans need weapons in the passing game. The wide receivers they might consider are generally off the board, so project them a tight end. Easy and obvious.

Now, it’s easy to criticize mock drafts, even one with natural connections like that one. I criticize mock drafts all the time, of course, but mostly reserve those thoughts to my head or to occasional mutterings when I’m alone. I wouldn’t be writing this post just to criticize mock drafts or even Howard and/or Njoku as players (for one, I’ve barely started watching draft prospects seriously). Especially in February, I use mock drafts as information on where players might be valued and/or evaluated and to build my own list of players to watch. But those projections of a tight end to the Tennessee Titans do give me an excuse to write about something I’ve been thinking about in general, namely the need to analyze potential Titans tight ends and wide receivers through the filter of roles.

This is something general manager Jon Robinson has expressly stated, that players are evaluated in terms of how they fit roles. While under Ruston Webster player evaluations might have been done free form in a relative vacuum, Robinson emphasized that draft prospects will be fit into the roster and compared to players on it. This means it’s important to look at what roles on the team might be open, and how draft prospects might fit or not fit into particular roles, including potentially at the expense of players currently on the roster.

We only have one draft with him in charge to consider in thinking about how Robinson does things, but fortunately Mike Mularkey brings with him a long history in the NFL in being in charge of an offense and/or a team. We can use that to learn some things, or at least makes some educated guesses.

One thing that’s clear if you look at Mularkey’s history is he tends to concentrate who he targets in the passing game. Among wide receivers and tight ends, the top three targets tend to have a lot more catches, while the fourth, fifth, or later options don’t have many. Look at the 2016 Titans-Rishard Matthews had 108 targets and 65 catches, Delanie Walker 102/65, Tajae Sharpe 83/41, and then Kendall Wright’s down at 42/29. The last offense Mularkey ran, the 2012 Jaguars: 132/64, 105/55, 77/52, then 43/24. The 2009 Falcons were probably the purest example of this-Roddy White was at 165/85, Tony Gonzalez 134/83, Michael Jenkins at 90/50, and then Marty Booker down at 31/16. One of those top three players may or may not be a tight end. Gonzalez obviously was targeted a lot, as was Walker, but Justin Peelle had 23 targets as the Falcons’ lead receiving tight end in Mularkey’s first year there.

Let’s apply this prism to the 2017 Titans. Matthews, Sharpe, and Walker are all back, and could fill the role of top three receivers. Now, it seems likely the Titans would be happy to have Matthews and Walker be focal points of the passing offense again this coming season. That leaves one role potentially up for grabs. The simple question to be asked of any wide receiver the Titans sign or draft is, will that WR send Tajae Sharpe to the bench? If the answer is no, he’s crossed off the list as a potential starter. Whether he could be function in a reserve role is a different question, but I belay that for now.

Now, these mock picks of Howard or Njoku, where they fit? The Titans obviously have a big need at tight end. There are two questions that will dictate whether the Titans potentially have interest in a first-round TE. First, do they like their offense better with that TE than they do their offense with Sharpe? Mularkey has never, ever, not once in his career featured two tight ends in the passing game. In the 12 seasons Mike Mularkey has spent as a team’s offensive coordinator or head coach, the most targets his TE2 has ever had in a season has been 19. (I’m not counting Anthony Fasano’s 42 targets in 2015 because that was Whisenhunt’s offense they installed leading into the season.)

Now, this presents to Mularkey a bit of a tactical problem. Walker’s a solid move tight end, but not somebody they want to put on the line of scrimmage in 21 or maybe even 12 personnel and run the ball with. One of the things that would make Howard and/or Njoku appealing to the Titans is if he could do that and present more of a pass threat in that role than Fasano (now a free agent) or Phillip Supernaw did this past season. But if you’re looking at that player as a Sharpe replacement, then what you’re looking for is a player who can line up on the outside and win 1v1 matchups against cornerbacks on intermediate routes (y’know, that thing Titans receivers had so many problems with this season). There are players who can do one, and there are players who can do the other, but hardly anybody this side of Rob Gronkowski can do both as frequently as he would have to do to fit both needs. So I’m kind of skeptical any TE in this draft fits that first potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end.

Ok, fine, the second potential justification for spending a first-round pick on a tight end. Are the Titans ready to move on from Delanie Walker in the near future? This is almost always an awkward question, but it must be asked. Walker turns 33 before the start of this coming season, and his contract expires after 2018 (when he’s due a $5.4 million base salary). If the Titans are ready to move on from Walker, they could select Howard or Njoku to be their TE2 this season, filling a Fasano-type role with more receiving upside, with the expectation that he’ll supplant Walker as their primary receiving TE and one of their big three receiving options in 2018, or at latest 2019 (similar to Derrick Henry’s likely career trajectory). If this is the answer, though, the pick of a tight end would be in addition to, not instead of, a receiver to supplant Sharpe.

Let’s try putting this into a different format. Here’s what things looked like in 2016:

Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Tajae Sharpe
Starting outside WR, frequently targeted: Rishard Matthews
Slot WR, occasionally targeted: Kendall Wright
WR4, slot or outside, infrequently targeted, didn’t play ST: Harry Douglas
Marginal WR: Marc Mariani (returner), Tre McBride

Move TE, frequently targeted: Delanie Walker
Inline TE, infrequently targeted: Anthony Fasano
TE3, blocker/special teams, infrequently targeted: Phillip Supernaw
TE4, inactive: Jace Amaro

Now, within the context of what I wrote above, here are your questions as we project those roles going forward to 2017:

1. Do you want Tajae Sharpe to be an 800+-snap player? If yes, fine. If not, then the Titans should look at free agency (not many great options, likely) or the draft (maybe depending on what you think of Mike Williams, Corey Davis, John Ross, etc.) for a player who can be better than Sharpe at this job. If you do this, then Sharpe could potentially fill one of the spots lower on the depth chart.

2. Kendall Wright is a free agent and, in my opinion, quite unlikely to return. This isn’t a big role, but is there a player on the roster you want to fill that slot WR role, even if it may just be a limited one?

3. Harry Douglas is due $3.75 million in the final year of his deal. (a) Do you want him to fill the Wright role, or you can find a better player for that? (b) In his inside-outside flexibility and your degree of trust in him, plus the absence of any cap pressure, such that you’re willing to pay him that much to again do what he did in 2016, or can you find a different, maybe better and/or cheaper player, preferably one who contributes on special teams for that role?

4. Marc Mariani is a free agent. Who’s going to return punts and kicks? I’m skeptical this player was on the 2016 roster. Obviously, this player doesn’t have to be a wide receiver and is quite unlikely to be a tight end.

5. Anthony Fasano is a free agent. Who’s going to fill that role? You could re-sign Fasano to do it, but as an anti-fan of old tight ends, I’d prefer a younger option if there’s a good one available. This player is unlikely to have a big passing game role in 2017, but could have one in future seasons.

6. Phillip Supernaw is likewise a free agent. This could be a good role for a young player with the goal of putting him in Fasano’s role in 2018, or just a marginal veteran.

7. Is there a path from Amaro’s current position to any potential role other than move TE? I really don’t see one, and haven’t since the Titans claimed him off waivers. But if the TE2 and TE3 aren’t credible potential Walker injury replacements, as they weren’t in 2016, Amaro could maintain his 53/healthy inactive status for another season.

Possible answers to those questions likely to come when free agency begins next month, and we should know a lot more about what the Titans are actually likely to do come draft night by the time I do the big draft preview post in mid- to late-April.

UPDATE (2017-02-20 2255): Had some “this season” ambiguity, using it to refer to alternatively 2016 or 2017 at different points, so changed that and some other style stuff that was annoying me.